10 May 2015

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 3, from Jakobsbad to Schwägalp

Time: 6 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 1210 metres
Height loss: 800 metres

Jakobsbad – Urnäsch – Hochalp – Spicher – Schwägalp

It’s another long journey to get from home to the start of this third leg of my walk. As the little red train of the Appenzeller Bahnen pulls into Urnäsch, I am half tempted to get off. I really should have carried on to here at the end of the previous leg, but I was tired and it was getting late, so I stopped at Jakobsbad. Now I am faced with an eextra hour and a half’s walking and 200 additional metres of height difference on top of what already looks like quite a strenuous day. I stay on the train though, and in the end it proves to be a good decision: the walk from Jakobsbad to Urnäsch is a pretty one, and I am in much better shape to enjoy it this morning that I would have been, already hot and tired, at the end of the previous stage.

I leave the station and walk past the entrance to a large old convent building, where two nuns are chatting away merrily. I climb steeply up along a lane, which very soon gives way to farm tracks and woodland paths as the way passes through a succession of copses and clearings. Signs with spiritual texts, no doubt placed by the residents of the convent, have been nailed to tree-trunks at intervals along the way. The first of these invites me to find peace in God, something which I may be have more inclined to do had he been able to arrange slightly less muddy conditions underfoot. A bit further along though, another sign advises me not to be cynical… someone must have been reading my thoughts! 

It has been a very wet week in Switzerland, and the ground is gorged with water, especially in the parts where the path passes through woodland. In places, wooden planks have been laid across the boggiest bits, but these artificial aids have a sting in their tail: I step on one which has been installed on a slight downhill slope, and before I can think “Bad idea”, I have slipped and am lying flat on my back on the plank, which is covered with a thin film of mud and is as slippery as black ice. My rucksack absorbs the shock and so I am not hurt, but I suspect that I may find my sandwiches to be slightly squashed and my apple a bit bruised when I have lunch later! 

Clouds between Jakobsbad and Urnäsch
I cross a field occupied by a herd of young cows as I approach the farmhouse at Studen. The cows are a good distance away, but start advancing towards me slightly more quickly than I would have liked, so I make a not very stylish but very efficient exit under the electric fence. At the next farm, while climbing over another electric fence using two tree-trunks that have been placed there for precisely this purpose, I slip and get entangled in the wire. Luckily, the series of electric shocks that I get are just small, cow-deterring ones, and not the full-blown 240 volts that some farmers seem to favour here.

Now Urnäsch comes into view. The path descends through a series of fields and gates where I pick up another dose of Switzerland’s finest hydro-electric power… at this rate, I will be charged like a battery by the end of the walk! Signposts direct me alongside the completely unprotected railway line: if a train came along at this point, I would be able to touch it by simply stretching my arm out. Admittedly, given the slow speed at which the Appenzeller trains advance, there is not too much risk of anything dangerous happening.

Although Urnäsch did not look very big from the train, it takes me a good half an hour to cross the village from end to end, as it straggles out uninspiringly along the road. In the village square, there is a very odd sporting event going on. In what looks like one of those inflatable bouncy castles, two teams of two boys are playing football. The boys are tied to each other – and to the boundary wall of the “arena” - by strong elastic bands, which jerk them back as they try to advance into the opposing half. It seems to be some kind of attempt to create a full-sized, live version of table football, complete with a referee (unconstrained by elastic).

Eventually I reach the end of the village. Here, for the first time but most certainly not the last, I deviate from the “official” route of the Alpine Panorama Trail. From this point, the route described in the official guidebook simply follows the valley bottom, and the main road, all the way up to Schwägalp, three hours and ten minutes away according to a signpost. The guidebook even goes as far as to admit that although the riverside path is pretty, there are “not many Alpine panoramas to be seen on this stage”. I have been studying my maps though, and have identified what looks like a much more scenic and higher level alternative, which follows the eastern side of the valley over two little summits, the Hochalp and Spicher, before dropping back down to meet the official route at Schwägalp. 

By now, though, I have already been walking for two hours, it is past midday, and I wonder if I will be biting off more than I can chew by taking what is obviously a longer alternative route. The signpost tells me 2 hours and 10 minutes to Hochalp; I reckon it will probably be another three hours from there to my final destination, plus at least half an hour for lunch and other breaks. It looks tight, especially given that I have infuriatingly forgotten to write down the time of the last bus from Schwägalp, and can no longer remember if it goes at 17:35 or 18:35. I decide to go for it though… at worst, I can opt out at Hochalp and easily get back down to the road and a bus stop.

At the last house before the village finally gives way to fields, a medium-sized dog comes running out, barking furiously and making it clear that I am not welcome. Its owner calls it back from inside the house, but the dog ignores him completely and continues to yap around me. I avoid looking at the dog, try to make my hiking poles not look like weapons and back off slowly. Mind you, if I was a Swiss farm dog and my owner had decided to call me Shakira, I think I might also have a tendency to disobey his orders out of sheer revenge… Eventually, as I retreat down towards the next house, Shakira sees something more interesting in the garden and disappears. The owner asks me where the dog went, but does not bother to apologise.

Now my way leads steeply uphill across fields, crossing a looping lane two or three times. The ridgeline that I will be following is now visible, as are the rocky walls of the Säntis, up above Schwägalp at the head of the valley. As I pass by a rustic little restaurant, I think to myself that the local Subaru dealer must have a good life: practically every one of the dozen cars parked outside the restaurant is some kind of four wheel drive Subaru, and the solitary VW Golf hiding in the middle of them looks very much out of place.

I continue uphill along the edge of a wood, then continue more steeply up across a wide, boggy pasture where my feet make entertaining squelchy noises at every step. At some point though, it must have been dry enough here for a tractor, as the parallel patterns of the grass, like those of a football pitch, show that an industrial-scale mower has been over here quite recently. At the top of this mossy pasture, an elaborate system of sloping planks has been set up to enable people to cross the fence into the next field… definitely a stile with style, but also unnecessarily complicated and awkward to get over. A good example of stile over substance, in fact… Beyond the next farmhouse, the ground flattens out into a vast, grassy plain, beneath an immense pale blue sky dotted with cumulus clouds. Here, a notice instructs walkers to proceed in single file, although there would be room for hundreds to walk side by side. 

Please walk in single file, there isn't room to go two abreast...
 Another wooded section follows, as I continue to gain altitude. Coming out of the trees, I now find myself at the foot of the final climb up to Hochalp. This hill is a bit of a geological curiosity: a slabby, gritty-looking horseshoe sends two parallel, grassy ridges running steeply down towards the north. The overall shape is something like that of a coal shovel. There is no path, but the way to go is clear: straight up the left-hand side of the shovel. The way gets steeper and steeper, until I reach the last hundred metres, the steepest of all. Here, I am pleased to see the presence of a zigzagging path, which eases the gradient and makes the last bit a lot less tough than it looked from a distance. At a quarter to two, I make it to the 1530-metre summit of Hochalp. I am pleased with myself; I have done the climb almost half an hour faster than the time indicated back down in Urnäsch.

The Säntis seen from Hochalp
The view from here is absolutely stupendous, and I have to wonder how the planners of national route No. 3 could so blatantly ignore it. I can only imagine that they considered the climb to Hochalp a bit too strenuous, compared to the rest of the path. From the start of the route in Rorschach until now, all the Alpine panoramas have basically been of the same mountains: the Alpstein range, getting closer and closer. But now, suddenly, whole new mountain ranges appear as if by magic. South-westwards, through a rocky gap, are a few of the Toblerone-like Churfirsten, with which I will be making closer acquaintance during the next two stages. Further to the west, nicely framed by the posts of a fence, is a great wedge of rock which I assume to be the Speer. And right in front of me, so close now that I could almost touch it, is the massive Säntis, all vertical naked rock and snow – although the amount of snow has diminished a lot since I got my first sight of the mountain from the Kaienspitz a few weekends ago.


From the yellow signpost on the summit, I am pleasantly surprised and relieved to learn that it is only another 2 hours and 20 minutes to Schwägalp, so I will not need to rush my rather late picnic lunch. I find a comfortable grassy slope just below the summit, set my rucksack up as a backrest and lean back to enjoy the view. My sandwiches are still intact despite being fallen on earlier in the day, the sun is hot, the view is majestic… life is just as it should be.

The second little summit of the day, the flat-topped Spicher, looks very close at hand beyond a deep valley. The path appears to make straight for it, skirting above the valley. In reality though, it will prove to be quite a bit further than it looks. After a 45-minute break I set off again, heading downhill towards a little cluster of farm buildings tucked in against the hillside. The Subaru dealer seems to have been doing business up here as well: the one parked here, according to the fake number-plates on display behind the windscreen, belongs to MARLIES and HANSUELI… one could not wish for two more typical Swiss names in such a place. 

The way ahead from Hochalp
I continue downhill towards the chalets of Älpli, about 150 metres lower down than my lunch spot. Since the Spicher is the same altitude as Hochalp, give or take ten metres, I know that I will now have to climb up those 150 metres again. After all those hard-surfaced farm lanes and forest tracks, it feels good to be back on a proper mountain path again: narrow, rocky in places, traversing above steep slopes of grass. Just before I reach Älpli, some kind of deer bounds across the path in front of me, dashing off downhill into the thick forest to my right. 

The path now contours around the western rim of a deep, densely wooded and very green valley. There is a sense of utter isolation and end-of-the-worldness about the valley: no houses, no sign of any paths, no apparent way out, just trees and more trees. It looks like the décor for one of those BBC nature documentaries where a team of sweaty naturalists and wildlife cameramen go off to explore some extinct volcano crater on a remote Pacific island. Thinking of the deer that went off down there, I can imagine that the valley must be teeming with wildlife, and that it might feel quite an intimidating place for a mere human. My path twists and turns around several smaller side valleys that run down into the main one, with the result that the way to the Spicher is much longer than I would have guessed from my vantage point on top of the Hochalp.

Dense forest fills the valley below Älpli
The final climb to the Spicher looks intimidatingly steep, but thankfully the path tackles it in a rising traverse rather than going directly up the hill. There are two places here where trees have fallen across the path. I find a way around the first one easily enough, but the second tree has fallen in a particularly steep and awkward place, and can be neither climbed over nor turned. The only option is to scramble underneath it, and I find myself wishing I was a couple of feet shorter. I emerge from the obstacle muddy (again) and covered in scratches.

Beyond the Spicher, the final downhill section of the walk begins. I can judge the approximate distance left by the noise of motorcycles on the pass road far below, gradually coming closer as I lose height. I pass a group of people considerably older than myself, all armed with iPads and busily taking a mixture of botanical photos and selfies. The ground becomes marshy again, with wooden planks and boards to keep the path clear of the stickiest, wettest bits. Occasional clearings where snow still lingers draw the eye away towards the cliffs of the Säntis, more imposing than ever now that I have lost a few hundred metres of height. There is one last uphill stretch, which comes as an unwelcome surprise and involves a lot of clambering over exposed tree-roots, until finally I come out of the forest just above the top of the pass at Schwägalp. 

Schwägalp and the Säntis
Schwägalp is not the quietest place in the Alps, it must be said. The pass road is very popular with bikers of both the motorised and unmotorised kinds, and the Säntis cable car also generates a lot of traffic. But none of the bustle can detract from the vertical wall of the mountain just opposite, rising up into the sky above a foreground of green pasture. There is a restaurant at the pass, and I spend a pleasant half hour sitting there with a beer, admiring this magnificent view until it is time to go and wait for the bus.

As I wait, a black car with German number-plates pulls up beside me, and its sole occupant, a blonde-haired woman, winds down the window. I think she is going to ask me for directions, but instead she unexpectedly says “Do you want to come with me?” I ask her which way she is going. “I have to go to Germany,” she says, not very helpfully as I don’t know if Nesslau railway station and Germany are in the same direction, “but just tell me where you want to go and which way it is, and I’ll take you there.” It seems a bit odd to me: a quite elegant, solitary woman stopping to pick up a random male stranger (and a dirty, sweaty one at that) and offering to take him wherever he wants to go. Should I accept the offer? If I tell her I’m going to Venice rather than Nesslau station, will she take me there? At that moment, the bus arrives, resolving my dilemma.

It has been an excellent day’s walking, and my decision to leave the official route has been fully justified. It would be nice to stay up here overnight, and then continue tomorrow with the next stage – in fact that was my original plan. But it’s Sunday evening, and tomorrow morning I need to be in the office. No doubt I will be back sooner rather than later though.

26 April 2015

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 2, from Trogen to Jakobsbad

Time: 5.25 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 835 metres
Height loss: 875 metres

Trogen – Bühler – Appenzell - Jakobsbad

A week after the first leg of my cross-country walk, I head back to eastern Switzerland for the second stage. After overnight rain, it is a lovely Sunday morning. The rain has cleared the air, the outline of the mountains is sharp, every element of the relief highlighted by the low-angled early morning sun. Residual ribbons of cloud add to the beauty of the scenery as I travel slowly on the Voralpen-Express (any Swiss train whose name contains the word “express” is guaranteed to be slow) from Luzern to St. Gallen, then on to Trogen where I ended the previous stage. Having woken up early and made the effort to get out of bed, I am ready to start walking at 10:30 despite the three-hour train ride.

It takes a fair bit of road walking to get out of Trogen, and it is half an hour before I am finally on a woodland path that climbs steeply up, winding its way over and around numerous tree roots that have been exposed by erosion. This path soon brings me out onto a lane – yet more asphalt – and in no time at all I have already reached Hohe Buche, the day’s first top at 1130 metres above sea level. This grassy hilltop, complete with a restaurant, gives great views southwards towards the Säntis range, already much closer than when seen from the Kaienspitz during the previous stage of the walk. It will still take a good day’s walking after this one before I am right up close to the mountains though. There are some big cumulus clouds puffing up over the summits: rain and possibly thunderstorms are forecast for this evening, and the first signs of the coming change are already there. 

On the way up to Hohe Buche
For the moment though, the weather is warm and sunny. Continuing southwards, I drop gently downhill along a rounded, grassy ridge. I see no other walkers but plenty of mountain bikers, some huffing and puffing their way uphill, others bracing and braking as they plunge downwards. I pass through a gate where rolling hills are nicely framed between trees, then climb up again to a rounded hilltop, nameless on the map but the day’s highest point at 1160 metres. The view opens up eastwards as well from here, with the most prominent feature being the Hoher Kasten, its square top a clear feature of the skyline.

Typical Appenzell landscape between Hohe Buche and Wissegg
Dropping down more steeply now I pass a couple of isolated houses at Wissegg, where there is also a monumental spreading tree, its branches still completely devoid of leaves. I pass through a herd of cows and carry on down through a grassy meadow where the background perfume of the air leaves no doubt that the same animals were here not long ago. A zigzagging path through trees finally brings me right down into the valley, and to the village of Bühler, grouped around a pretty church tower but otherwise undistinguished. There is a junior football tournament going on as the church clock strikes midday, four tiny teams battling it out on two adjacent pitches while others wait their turn.

At Wissegg
More road walking now, and steep uphill road walking at that. The day has become hot and quite sticky as I slog uphill, climbing back out of the valley into which I descended half an hour previously. A hand-painted signpost informs me that it is 2443 kilometres and 96 days’ walk to Santiago de Compostela… I don’t think I will be doing that. Eventually the lane becomes a grassy path, which climbs prettily up along the edge of a wood, before bringing me out onto another ridge top at the farm of Saul, at an altitude of 1031 metres. I have finally regained all the height lost earlier.

It's a long way to Santiago...
The view is magnificent from here, even though the summits of the Alpstein range have succumbed to the clouds and disappeared. The foreground is a lovely mix of green hills, little copses and hedgerows, and fields where the vivid green of the spring grass is intermingled with bands of yellow dandelions. I find a nice spot just up above the path to sit and have my lunch, not doing any sketching this time but just enjoying a landscape on which the only blot is a line of high-voltage power cables (edited out of the photo below). Occasional walkers pass by, including a woman who I initially think is trying to engage me in conversation, before I realise that she is simply chattering away with herself. 

From this point, it is a long, steady descent down into the next valley and to the little town of Appenzell, the regional capital. Though pretty, this part of the walk is yet again largely on hard surfaces, with only occasional shortcuts to eliminate loops in the lane. It has taken me three hours to reach Appenzell, and once again I realise that my guidebook (which suggests 4 hours 15 minutes as the time needed) must be aimed at a very relaxed kind of hiker. I have not been pushing myself at all, and yet am 25% faster than the indicated time.

View towards the Hoher Kasten, on the way down to Appenzell village
I do not get to see much of Appenzell. Unexpectedly, and somewhat unfortunately, I arrive right in the middle of the Landsgemeinde, an exercise in direct democracy that is held here once a year on the last Sunday in April (a fact which I did not know until Wikipedia told me about it after the walk). It is clearly a big event not only for tourists, but also for the local population. The streets of the village are packed, most of the men are wearing suits or at least smart shirts, while the women are dressed up in posh frocks and hats. Everyone looks very hot and everyone is making good use of the beer stalls that have been set up in the streets. The village’s main square is completely blocked off, accessible only to those who have the right to vote, which obviously does not include me. Officers wearing blue suits and very shiny brass helmets are guarding the entry points to the square, making sure that only locals are allowed to go within the perimeter rope and raise their hands to vote. On a rostrum at one end of the square, below a big tree, a local dignitary or politician is making a speech about the town’s swimming pool, clearly the object of some kind of vote today. It is an interesting tradition to have seen, but it does mean that I do not really get much of a look at the village centre.

Landsgemeinde in Appenzell
I was not sure how far I would walk today; Trogen to Appenzell was always going to be too short a day’s walk. The next stage in my guidebook would take me to Urnäsch, but that would be another three to four hours and probably too much – or at least, it would result in me getting home very late. I opt for a compromise and decide to walk to Jakobsbad, just over halfway to Urnäsch; I will tack the remaining hour and a quarter onto the beginning of the next stage. 

To be honest, I might as well not have bothered, as the two hours’ walk from Appenzell to Jakobsbad is best forgotten. To anyone reading this who is not obsessed with walking every inch of the official route, I would recommend either finding an alternative for this stage, or simply taking the train from Appenzell to Urnäsch. The first twenty minutes’ walking out of Appenzell is beside a very busy main road. The path then rises a bit above the road, but stays very close to it all the way to Gontenbad, which I reach after about three quarters of an hour. There is no view to speak of – the best views are behind me, towards the Hoher Kasten, but even these are marred by the urban foreground.

Beyond Gontenbad, things improve slightly, and here comes the only redeeming feature of this part of the walk. From Gontenbad to Jakobsbad is the Barfussweg, or “Barefoot path”. As its name suggests, this is a modern re-invention of the old tradition whereby people would remove their shoes to cross the grassy fields from one village to the next. I bow to the tradition, remove my shoes and socks and set off along a grassy path which skirts round the edge of a golf course. It’s actually a very pleasant sensation to be walking barefoot in the grass, and the earth of the occasional muddier patches also feels lovely and cool underfoot. Of course I will not be a pretty sight afterwards, but I had planned to wash my feet this month anyway… Along the way I pass several other barefoot walkers, mostly families but also several older people. There are also quite a few cyclists, none of whom are barefoot, nor have they removed the wheels of their bikes. Eventually the ground becomes more gravelly and less pleasant to walk on, and I put my boots back on. I skirt past the village of Gonten, from where a final twenty minutes’ or so walking brings me to Jakobsbad, where there is a railway station and various outdoor activities: a cable-car going up to the Kronberg above, a rope walk activity thing, a nature trail and so on. 

On the train back, just before Urnäsch, there is a view up the valley that leads towards Schwägalp. This will be the next stage of the walk. The official Alpine Panorama route simply follows the river up the valley bottom, but I have identified a more interesting-looking way up the hills on its left side, via Hochalp and the 1520-metre Spicher. It still looks like there is a lot of snow up there though and, with much colder temperatures and more snow forecast over the coming days, I may need to put the next part of my journey on hold for a couple of weeks. 

Tradition respected

19 April 2015

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 1, from Rorschach to Trogen

Time: 4.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 1125 metres
Height loss: 700 metres

Rorschach – Heiden – Kaienspitz – Rehetobel - Trogen

The Swiss national walking route No. 3, or “Alpine Panorama Trail”, crosses the country from east to west, from the banks of Lake Constance to the shore of Lake Geneva. It is a predominantly low-level itinerary, rarely going above 1,500 metres, its route designed to give panoramic views over the main Alpine range rather than being right in the middle of it. As such, it is an ideal choice for the start and end of the summer hiking season, when the higher hills are still covered in snow.

I have been interested in the idea of walking the route for several years. Doing it all in one go would hardly be feasible, as completing the 30 stages would mean taking five or six weeks off work. But doing it over a period of time as a series of one, two or three-day walks is very much a possibility, and it will give a theme to my season, much as my tour of Lake Lucerne did three years ago – this is something that I missed having last summer. Never mind if it takes me three years to reach Geneva, I have decided to do it, and to start this weekend. I will not be sticking religiously to the “official” itinerary; I have already done several of the stages as day hikes, and will be looking for alternative routes rather than repeating these.

It’s a long way to Rorschach, meaning a six-thirty breakfast and three hours on various trains. Getting home from the end of today’s stage will be pretty much the same, only without the breakfast. There is a certain madness in spending six hours on trains for a four-hour walk, and of course it would have made more sense to string two or three of these far-from-home eastern stages together. But never mind, I totally accept being slightly batty.

Lake Constance at Rorschach
From the station at Rorschach, I make the short walk to the lakeside, where a brisk, chilly breeze is whipping across from the distant German shore. It is far from warm despite the clear blue sky. The start of the walk is not particularly auspicious: it takes the best part of 45 minutes to break free of Rorschach’s suburban sprawl. Scattered residential areas populate the hillside above the town as I climb steadily uphill, all looking out over the huge, dark-blue lake, a view whose interest is somewhat diminished by the absence of any mountains or even hills on the far bank. I pass under a noisy motorway and continue to climb, across a field then between more houses, finally reaching the end of urban civilisation at Wartensee, where a small castle has been converted into some kind of conference centre. It doesn’t really feel like the start of a thirty-day hiking route.

Now things become more interesting. I climb through forest, soon emerging into a deep-sided valley where I cross and re-cross a tiny, narrow-gauge railway line several times. Spring is doing its stuff after two weeks of warm sunshine: suddenly, almost all the trees are in either leaf or blossom, and the fields are a sea of long, very green grass, dandelions and daisies. Looking eastwards through gaps in the surrounding woodland, the foothills of the Austrian Alps are visible in the middle distance, the first of the Alpine Panorama Trail’s alpine panoramas, albeit a restricted view one. The path is rarely level, constantly going up and down, with a general trend towards upness rather than downness. I suspect that this will be a characteristic of the entire route: these are the foothills of the Alps, and by nature foothills tend to be all humps and bumps, deep valleys and little summits.

Passing the hamlet of Schwendi, which consists of little more than a tiny station and a rustic-looking restaurant, I pass underneath the railway and drop down into another valley, following a lane that twists and turns downhill, passes between two uncharacteristically scruffy farms, then crosses a stream before petering out into a muddy track. A short but killingly steep climb follows, a hundred metres’ height gain in about a third of a kilometre, leaving me well and truly out of breath by the time I reach more level ground. By another farmhouse a car pulls up; a dog jumps out, sees me and starts towards me, barking aggressively… then spots a cow in the next field and, to me relief, decides that chasing the cow will be more fun than chasing me. 

Traditional Appenzeller houses in Heiden
Now my way takes me through the village of Heiden, an affluent-looking place with spotlessly clean streets and numerous big, elegant houses. Here I see the first examples of the Appenzell region’s very typical architecture: red-roofed, mostly white-painted wooden houses, gable-ends facing the street, with often ornately decorated facades and large numbers of very small windows. The architecture will be very much a feature of today’s walk, with many fascinating examples on show.

Now for the climb up to the day’s highest point, the 1122-metre Kaienspitz. A long section of steep, uphill road walking is needed to get out of Heiden; it seems to go on for ever. In fact, an excess of tarmac slightly spoils this first stage of national route No. 3. I hope this will not be typical, but suspect that it might be: the route stays largely at altitudes occupied by villages and farms, so lanes and tracks are likely to be more common than mountain paths. Finally, above the hamlet of Ober Brunnen, a steep staircase leads to open grassland, with ever-wider views opening up in all directions. Only ahead of me is the view still blocked by forest, but that is about to change in a most spectacular fashion.

Heading up towards the Kaienspitz
I climb steeply uphill across the pathless pasture, passing little barns and isolated houses. Behind me, the lake has receded into the far distance, and will soon disappear. I pass through another wooded area, emerging at the foot of the Kaienspitz’s summit slope. And there, suddenly, as I reach the highest point, the southward panorama appears. It really is beautiful: here is the whole of the Alpstein range, still carrying a lot of snow. Dominating the picture is the Säntis, only 2500 metres high but looking for all the world like a giant of the Bernese Oberland or Valais. It has taken me two and three quarter hours to reach the Kaienspitz, I have made good progress and it is lunchtime. This is a popular walking destination, and there is no shortage of sunny benches on which to sit and eat my sandwiches.

And suddenly...

I can see my final destination, the village of Trogen, very close at hand as the crow flies, probably no more than five kilometres. The problem is that between my current location and Trogen lies a deep valley: 450 metres down from here to the valley bottom, then another 250 up its far side. I had better get going. I set off down the south ridge of the Kaienspitz which, I have to say, is a most inappropriate name: the word Spitz suggests something quite sharp and pointed, while the Kaienspitz is more like a flat-topped, grassy mound. After ten minutes, past the first farm on the southern side, I find myself back on tarmac again, and have to follow a minor road all the way down to Rehetobel, almost two kilometres further on. Rehetobel is another pretty village, with several traditional houses and a generally more countrified feel to it than Heiden. 

Not quite identical twins
Leaving the village at its lower end, the way down into the valley becomes ever steeper. A warning sign tells me to beware of a firing range, and that I may die a horrible death if I pass this way “while the bag is flying”. I see no sign of bags, windsocks or anything else that this might refer to, so continue and live to tell the tale. Very steeply downhill now, lower and lower I drop down until I finally reach Chästenloch, right at the bottom of the valley by a river. I am surprised to see a couple of houses in this very isolated and inaccessible place; one of them is derelict but the other is operating as a restaurant and seems to be doing a busy trade. The setting is not unlike Ranft, the hermitage up above Sarnen.

Various modern hostelries in Rehetobel, where they even have the telephone...
Escaping from this valley is even steeper and more tiring than the previous one, before Heiden. The afternoon has become hot and, after a thousand metres of upping and downing already, my legs are heavy. Slowly but surely I climb, until eventually I reach the first houses of Trogen. At the entrance to the village is a sports ground with a magnificently mown football field, complete with terracing… but no goals or pitch markings. Maybe Trogen Wanderers are no longer a going concern, or maybe it’s just the world’s biggest bowling green.

Traditional houses in Trogen
I climb up towards the village centre, passing more magnificent old houses, some of which have an astonishing number of windows… who’d be a window-cleaner in the Appenzellerland? In the centre of the village is the Landsgemeindeplatz, where as recently as 1997, local referendums were decided by show of hands, the entire population gathering in the square to vote. A short walk brings me to the village’s little railway station, and a 20-minute ride on a toytown train back to St. Gallen, from where it’s a little more than two hours to get home. The entire walk has taken me four and a half hours, quite a bit less than the six hours listed in the official guidebook. If this is typical of the timings given, I may be able to combine some of the shorter days.

12 April 2015

From Entlebuch over the Alpiliegg

Time: 4 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 780 metres
Height loss: 780 metres

 Entlebuch – Alpiliegg – Finsterwald – Burggrabe - Entlebuch

 After a sunny but rather chilly end to the long Easter weekend, the return to the office was immediately (and I suppose inevitably) accompanied by soaring temperatures, which have persisted all week and beyond. The central heating has been turned off, and short-sleeved shirts and summer jackets have replaced pullovers and anoraks. A slightly greyer Saturday allows me to get all the routine household stuff out of the way with no regrets about what I am missing, and leaves me free to make the most of what promises to be a perfect Sunday.

I have no great desire to do anything too strenuous, and anyway, there is still too much snow at altitude to envisage going very high. I decide on a fairly gentle-looking walk not too far from home, allowing me time to make the most of the weather and the views; maybe I will even be inspired to do some sketching, so I take paper and pencils along with me.

At half past ten I start from the railway station in Entlebuch, deep in its valley bottom but already at an altitude of 683 metres, leaving me another 600 or so to reach the Alpiliegg, the day’s highest point. The village is in a Sunday-morning slumber, and the sunshine is warm enough for me to discard my fleece from the outset. I walk uphill through the quiet streets until the houses give way to fields, getting a bit of a scare at the very last house when a dog comes shooting out of the garden barking, immediately called back by its owner who also grabs hold of it for good measure.

The path leads up towards a tree-lined ridge
The gradient steepens and I am soon feeling out of breath, not surprisingly given that my only other walk in the last six weeks was mostly flat. I climb up through woods towards a ridge, its skyline topped with a row of tall, slender trees. I cross a lane, beyond which a narrow path heads ever more steeply uphill through more trees, while several hundred metres away to my right at the farmhouse of Scluechtberg, a dog barks aggressively, leaving me in no doubt as to who this territory belongs to. At the point where my path leaves the shelter of the trees some way above the farm, a “Beware of the dog – walkers and bikers please use the path through the woods” sign suggests that there may have been incidents in the past where people have tried to use the more direct track that runs right past the farmhouse.

Wind turbine at Feldmoos
This initial, steepish climb has brought me to Feldmoos, already at 1,017 metres. I am now level with the skyline trees that I saw earlier; they share their hilltop with a no doubt highly beneficial but also rather unsightly wind turbine, huge and white against the blue sky. Two more turbines top adjacent hills, all three of them immobile on this calm Sunday morning. For the first time, I get a view of distant mountains popping up above intervening trees: ahead, the western walls of the Pilatus range, while away to my right, a line of telegraph poles guides the eye perfectly towards the craggy, snow-covered Schafmatt.

A farm track takes me across open fields, then into the fringes of another wooded area. Occasional clearings give picturesque views towards freshly-mown meadows and little farmhouses. The track drops down into a shallow valley and crosses a stream, beyond which a narrower, muddy path branches off to the left. This path leads me steeply down into a deeper, very green valley, where I cross a second stream on a narrow wooden footbridge, nomore than two tree-trunks tied together and a handrail. Another ten minutes and I come to the end of the woods at an isolated farm marked on the map as Lutersarni Neuhaus, the roof of its main building covered in an impressive array of solar panels. There seems to be a party going on inside the house, or possibly preparation for a noisy Sunday lunch with friends; there is the sound of laughter and loud talking in what sounds like Italian, while a hifi system is belting out Arab-influenced rock music. I can imagine it being a perfect place to invite a dozen friends round for a barbecue and a few beers!

Now for the final climb to the Alpiliegg. Beyond the farm, there is no path but the way is obvious, heading straight up an open, grassy pasture towards a clear gap in a line of trees. From here, I continue uphill, as the view to my right becomes ever more impressive. I stop halfway up the slope for twenty minutes and do a quick sketch of the landscape: little do I realise at the time, but this will be sufficient to give me a nicely sunburnt neck and make things very uncomfortable when I put on my work shirt in the morning. 

The Apiliegg is not really a hill with a clearly-determined summit, but rather a long, grassy hump culminating at a modest 1279 metres. The broad, flat centre of the ridge is grassy, lined on either side by trees which somewhat cut off the view. It’s one of those places which I imagine must be quite damp even in dry conditions, judging by the mossy, marshy nature of the grass. Today, with all the winter’s snow and rain still very much present, it is spongy underfoot to say the least. The easiest way to progress without getting very muddy seems to be to try to walk on the sparse, residual patches of snow, and so it is in a very un-straight line that I complete the ascension of my first “summit” of 2015. 

On the Alpiliegg
There is no view from the highest point, so I continue westwards for five minutes, steadily downhill until I reach the saddle between the Alpiliegg and its neighbour, the Schafberg, a green hump that has been prominent in the view for the last hour. The saddle is bare of trees, and here I find a nice spot to stop for lunch. The grass seems to be dry, the view southwards towards the Schimbrig and the Schafmatt is superb; only the sound of traffic on the road below breaks the idyll. One other sound eventually wafts up to me though: from a farm somewhere below comes the faint sound of more Arab-style music. It is not the same farm as before, and it makes me wonder whether the entire population of the valley has just returned from a winter break in Morocco, bringing CDs of the local music back with them and keen to prolong their holiday.

I eat my sandwiches (one ham and Branston pickle, one cheese, salami and mustard) and an apple, then debate whether to attempt a sketch of all the mountains spread out in front of me. It all looks rather complicated, but in the end I go for a simplified version, eliminating all the fields, hedgerows, houses and hamlets in the foreground. A twenty-minute siesta completes my lunch break, by which time I have a thoroughly wet bottom, the grass not being quite as dry as I initially thought! It is time to move on…

From my lunch spot, it is only a short walk down to the village of Finsterwald, passing a house with a weathervane on which the usual cockerel has been replaced by a horse. I cross the main road and continue along a path that first runs by the side of a wood, before plunging into the trees and starting to drop down into a deep, steep valley. There is a surprise in store here: in a green clearing, an old tram has been converted into a shelter, complete with original seats and lamps inside, and a notice stating that there are “16 seated and 15 standing places”. It reminds me of the little bus that I used to take to school in the early 1970s, in which customers were informed by a notice that “THREE standing passengers are allowed in this vehicle at all times”. How many times was I left standing waiting for the next bus because the magic number of THREE had already been reached… There is even a tram-stop beside the tram-shelter, with the name of the place, just like the bus-stops in Lucerne. Only the timetable is missing. A sign explains that this early 20th-century tram was one of the last to run in Lucerne, before the city did away with them in 1961. Donated by the Lucerne transport company, this old blue and white tram has found a new, if rather odd vocation in a most unexpected place.

An unexpected sight in the forest...
My way ahead now runs pleasantly beside a pretty stream, with occasional houses up on the high bank that borders the valley. Then the path re-enters the woods and suddenly, the valley becomes much narrower and darker, almost a ravine. Its sides become steep, and the peaceful stream becomes more agitated, tumbling down little waterfalls between green, mossy boulders. The path itself clings to the valley’s eastern side; narrow, often muddy and covered in a deep bed of dead leaves which give the whole atmosphere a suddenly autumnal feel. This is the Burggrabe, a clearly-marked cleft in the land on the map, but certainly deeper and steeper than I had expected.

At the valley’s lowest point, where two bridges cross a confluence of streams, there is a choice of paths. The most direct way back to Entlebuch simply follows the valley bottom, but there is an alternative, longer route intriguingly marked “Burgweg – Kanalweg” (Castle and Canal route). I had read about an old fortification in my guidebook, but nothing about canals, and wonder what further surprises will be in store for me.

It’s a short but painfully steep climb up to the “castle”, which in fact is an ancient earthwork, now no more than a grassy hump with a slightly artificial shape to it. Whatever fortifications may have crowned the hump in the past have been replaced with a little white chapel (the Burgkapelle), from where there is a splendid view across pastoral farmland to the distant hills.

Behind the chapel, the onward route is marked “Vorsicht, steiler Weg” (Caution, steep path). This is not an exaggeration: the next section is very, very steeply downhill. The route drops down a narrow spur of land between the streams I have been following and the bigger Grosse Entle river. The way has been very well secured with wooden handrails and steps, without which it would be quite a tricky prospect. Even with these man-made alterations in the interest of safety, this path would demand care in wet weather, when it would undoubtedly become very slippery. 

Given the steepness of the terrain, it does not take me long to reach the Grosse Entle, below near-vertical, slabby cliffs where rock-climbers are alternating between scrambling up the slabs and cooling their feet in the river. The riverbed itself is broad and stony, its water shallow, swift-flowing and green. And here is the mysterious canal, the last of the day’s several surprises. A few metres above the river, there is indeed a man-made canal, three or four metres wide and quite shallow; in the Valais, it would be called a “bisse” or a “Suone” depending on the local language. An information board explains that the canal was built in the 1860s, but fails to explain why. Whatever its original purpose was, the path that runs beside it makes for a pleasant end to my walk, as little streamlets run down the yellowish slabs and splish-splash prettily into the canal, sparkling in the afternoon sun. The path soon brings me back to civilisation and to my starting point at Entlebuch station. Sometimes what on paper looks like the simplest, most mundane of walks can throw up all sorts of fascinating little details: this has been one of those.

The canal in the valley of the Grosse Entle


06 April 2015

An Easter walk around the Sarnersee

Time: 4.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 425 metres
Height loss: 425 metres

Sarnen – Giswil – Sachseln - Sarnen

I have always thought that Easter is a bit of a waste of time in Switzerland. Four days off work, the anticipation of nice spring walks among the gambolling lambs, Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs… and then let-down as harsh reality sinks in: it’s still winter. This year is no exception: Good Friday is cold and grey, Easter Saturday a complete washout with continuous, heavy rain thrashing against my windows. Sunday looks like it might be a bit better, with an improving forecast, and I decide on a walk around the Sarnersee, coupled with a visit to a landscape painting exhibition in Sachseln, one of the lakeside villages. As soon as I get outside though, I realise that it’s a lot colder than it looked from the warmth of my bedroom. It’s not raining, but flurries of snow and strong winds buffet me as I walk to the station, while a pale sun devoid of any kind of warmth makes occasional, unconvincing attempts to break through the cloud. During the twenty-minute train ride the weather steadily worsens, and by the time I reach Sarnen it’s snowing and the mountains have disappeared into the clouds. I get off the train, shiver, tell myself “This is mad” and get back on the train. I will try again tomorrow.

Easter Monday morning is a complete contrast: blue sky, sun, not a cloud to be seen despite a forecast for more rain in the afternoon. It’s still bitterly cold – more like February than April – but yesterday’s cruel north wind has dropped to a gentle, harmless breeze, and I am well equipped with thermal underwear, two fleeces and gloves. From the train to Sarnen, the snow-plastered Pilatus looks like a great jagged iceberg thrusting up above a black sea of conifers.

Looking southwards down the Sarnersee from Sarnen
The lakeside town of Sarnen looks like a quiet, conventional little place, but one inhabitant at least has decided to try something different… and may be regretting it, if we are to believe the large graffiti “ANAL LOVE HURTS” sprayed three feet high on a very visible wall. As I walk along the river towards the lake, two joggers pass me chatting to each other. One has very dark hair, the other is very blonde; both have identical pony-tails, which bob from side to side in perfect unison as they run. Children are playing football in a well-equipped school playground… one of the nice things about Switzerland is that schools are open, public places, and you often see local kids making the most of the facilities at the weekend. Further along, outside the rowing club, people are preparing long, streamlined boats for what will surely be an extremely cold outing on the lake… one would not want to fall into this water!

I reach the lakeside and get my first view southwards towards its far end, blue-green water leading the eye through reed beds towards the snow-covered peaks of the Bernese Oberland way away beyond the Brünig pass. I really must try to get back there more this coming summer. Up on a hill, a little white church stands out against the blue sky, its bells starting to ring as if in recognition when I take a photo of it. I pass through a residential area where children are playing in the street, their parents no doubt relieved to get rid of them after three days where the weather will have kept them shut up indoors. Leaving the town now, I climb up above the lake along a lane, with an extensive panorama soon opening up ahead of me. The sound of water is everywhere, as all the past days’ rain runs down off the hills, passing under the lane in streams and culverts. A large bird of prey turns slowly in the air only a very short distance away, the light grey underside of its wings clearly visible. It really is a magnificent morning, the change in weather since this time yesterday is absolutely insane. 

Having climbed about 150 metres up above the level of the lake, the lane now keeps a fairly constant altitude, with just minor ups and downs, occasionally passing through avenues of tall trees that come marching down the slope from right to left. There are signs of spring in the hedgerows and the fields, with buds and blossom, but the taller trees are still very much in winter mode, stark, bare and vertical against the clear sky and the mountain backdrop. On the far side of the lake, the knife-edged Arnigrat ridge is still in the full grip of winter and looks like something out of a documentary about the Himalayas, despite its very modest altitude of some 2100 metres. Two people with a tiny, fluffy white dog catch me up; the dog is clearly in charge and is setting the pace for its owners. “Slow down, Tracy, come back” they call in vain as Tracy (now there’s a silly name for a dog!) takes absolutely no notice and comes to wag her tail at me instead. 

There are many pretty old wooden farmhouses dotted along the side of the lane, all with stupendous views, and all with shutters painted the same shade of pale green. Either there is some local bye-law about shutter colour, or someone had a very big bucket of paint and shared it with the neighbours. Now the lane gives way to a forest track, and the views are temporarily blocked off by the trees. Somewhere up to my right, a woodpecker is indulging in some carpentry, blissfully ignorant of the rules about not doing DIY on Sundays and holidays. The track climbs to 640 metres, the highest point of the walk, then leaves the woods at the farm of Holzmatt. A family is talking to friends in the farmyard here, while three cats and three cows observe each other, the former licking themselves, the latter swishing their tails. This animated little scene is set to Swiss German rock music which is coming out of the cowshed – good to know that they have culturally aware cows in Obwalden. 

One of many attractive wooden buildings above the lake
Although it is only 11:45, I stop for lunch when I see a suitable bench, as it looks like there is going to be another lengthy wooded section coming up. It’s a bit too chilly to fully enjoy the view back towards the Stanserhorn, so I only stop for twenty minutes or so before continuing. Just inside the next patch of forest, a woman is standing beside a red car with a long, thin branch in her hands. She seems to be fashioning the branch into a large loop, and I wonder what its purpose might be. Now I start to drop back down towards the lake, for the only time today on a muddy path rather than a lane or a track. Somewhere away to the right, the sound of a stream gets gradually louder, until I eventually come to the bridge that crosses it: I am surprised by how little water it is carrying, but the width of the gully down which it comes is impressive, it must get quite wild after a storm.

I reach the lakeside again at its southern end near the village of Giswil, just by a large and very well-situated camp site. The sunshine has brought people out, the camp site is open and its restaurant looks to be having a busy lunch hour. But looking northwards back up the lake, I can see that the weather is changing quickly. The rain forecast for later in the day seemed hard to take seriously three hours ago, but the sky away to the north is now grey, and already the Stanserhorn and Pilatus are starting to hide their heads in the first clouds.

At the southern end of the lake, looking back towards Sarnen at the far end
The next half hour makes for uninspiring walking, as I have to cross the industrial area at the lake’s southern extremity. The wind is starting to get up again, and I am relieved when I finally leave the main road at the point marked on the map as Zollhus.

The way up the eastern side of the lake is completely different from the one I followed down its western side and, it has to be said, is less interesting. Whereas on the west bank I was high up above the lake, the path on the eastern side runs right along the shore of the lake. This has its advantages: reed beds, the sound of lapping water and quacking ducks are all there in abundance. However, for the whole length of the lake, the path runs close alongside a railway line and it is rather monotonous. No doubt it would be a train-spotter’s paradise, although the variety of trains on show would probably not satisfy the purist; the choice being limited to two small red trains and one slightly less small red train per hour in each direction. Maybe the deteriorating weather is playing its part, so probably are my sore feet, but I definitely enjoy this part of the walk less than the morning’s part.

The weather is changing
At half past two I reach Sachseln, and make a detour away from the lakeside to visit the painting exhibition that was at the origin of today’s hiking idea. The exhibition is a juxtaposition of early 20th-century landscape paintings and modern photographs taken from the same viewpoints. Some of the places do not seem to have changed at all; for others, the contrast between the 1920s and today is striking. The exhibition is interesting but small, just enough to spend half an hour or so before setting out for the final leg of the walk.

This is what happens when you leave a sunny afternoon for half an hour to get a bit of culture...
From Sachseln back to Sarnen is about an hour’s walk, along an increasingly urban lakeside. While I was in the exhibition, the sky has covered completely and the colour of the lake has gone from turquoise blue to dull grey. I reach the end of the lake by another camp site, and complete my walk back through an impressive area given over to sports facilities, all looking very new and surprisingly lavish for such a small town. I can’t help thinking that it would be hard to find a more ideal place than this to bring a young family up to enjoy a healthy, sporty, outdoor life.

I get to the station five minutes before a train is due to leave; perfect timing at the end of a very pleasant day. As always at the end of winter, it’s a delight to be able to just get outside and do “summer walking” again. The forecasters tell me that by the end of the coming week, temperatures will be up in the twenties… this time, it looks like spring may really be about to arrive.